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You decide – is the ‘Nevermind’ lawsuit about exploitation or money?

The child star on one of the world’s most famous album covers is suing for irreparable damages. Are the claims genuine or a ‘get rich quick’ scheme?

Spencer Elden, the four-month-old baby featured on the cover of Nirvana’s 1991 Nevermind album, is suing the band for alleged sexual exploitation.

US law typically doesn’t consider non-sexualised images of children as child pornography, but Elden’s lawyer suggests the image of a baby floating alongside a dollar bill makes him ‘seem like a sex worker’.

Now 30 years old, he is requesting at least $150,000 in damages from each of the fifteen defendants, which include the living members of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain’s estate, and the photographer Kirk Weddle.

As an adult, Elden has recreated the album cover multiple times to mark the anniversary of its release (albeit wearing swim shorts), noting that it has ‘always opened doors for [him]’ in both his professional and personal life.

Credit: John Chapple

Elden also told The Guardian in 2015: ‘[The photographer] had shot a number of babies to find the right image, and they ended up choosing me. I think it’s because of my penis – a lot of the other babies were girls. Also, the composition seemed very natural. I am glad they chose me.’

He also discussed the possibility of recreating the image completely naked in the future stating, ‘why not? I think it would be fun.’

But a year later, Elden’s attitude shifted. He mentioned feeling conflicted about being unable to agree to the image being taken due to his age. Elden also did not receive any payment for the photo – though his father received $200 and free tacos.

Around that same time, awareness about consent surged thanks to the prevalance of the ‘Me Too’ movement. Perhaps Elden did have a real change of heart about being photographed as an infant.

However, the photographer, Kirk Weddle, said in 2019 that Elden has struggled with the fact everybody had made money from Nevermind besides him.

The album is one of the best-selling records of all time, with 30 million copies sold worldwide. Weddle said, ‘I think he deserves something.’

Forgive me if it seems like I’m drawing at straws, but in the same year he indicated his discomfort with the photo, Elden had reached out to the band to ask whether they’d participate in an art show he was hosting – to no avail.

He told GQ Australia, ‘I was asking if they wanted to put a piece of art in the fucking thing. I was getting referred to their managers and their lawyers. Why am I still on their cover if I’m not that big of a deal?’

Elden also divulged the ways he’d experienced romantic rejection, blaming his lack of payment from the band. ‘You’ll hook up with a hot chick, and then they figure out you’re not making any money from [the Nirvana album] and they’ll dump you.’

This all sounds a little sus to me. While it would no doubt feel unsettling to be the naked baby on one of the world’s most famous album covers in all of history, you’re basically unrecognisable unless you tell somebody about it.

If anything, it’s a cool anecdote to tell people at parties – in case they hadn’t clocked the giant ‘Nevermind’ tattoo inked across your chest first.

So, I have to ask: could this all be an attempt to claim ‘extreme and permanent emotional distress’ to finally receive a portion of earnings from the album?

If the answer is yes, there are a couple of problems that arise – the most concerning being the fabrication of mental distress to win a lawsuit (and subsequently, a cheque).

Not only would this high-profile case have the potential to discredit others who are suing for actual psychological damages – but it’d also be a detriment to Elden himself.

Studies have shown that people who feign mental illnesses to take advantage of the legal system will unconsciously experience an ‘embellishment of [such] symptoms.’

In short, feigning certain kinds of mental illness (ie. anxiety, depression) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; individuals can easily deceive themselves into believing they feel or are a certain way.

On the other hand, Elden has claimed that he ‘has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages’ including ‘interference with his normal development and educational progress.’

If these claims are true, then – by all means – compensation is reasonable.  Humans are multidimensional, kaleidoscopic beings and it’s natural for emotions and attitudes to change.

Although Elden spent most of his life revelling in being the ‘Nirvana baby’, that doesn’t mean he isn’t allowed to admit to being salty and upset about the whole thing thirty years on.

It is totally possible that Stephen Elden is looking back and feeling used. Especially in the case that life hasn’t panned out the way he imagined.

Perhaps he’s thinking now is a good time to cash in – but is suing for sexual exploitation really the right legal avenue if it means (potentially) exaggerating the truth about your history of mental health?

We’ll have to see what the court – and a jury – ultimately decides.